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Summer in France 2014 – Hail, Hail The Birthday Girl

For the life of me, I cannot come up with the name of one woman who looked forward to her 50th birthday. Oftentime this particular milestone is met with emotional distress, denial, resolutions for extreme fitness regimes, and appointments for botox/facelift/tummy-tuck/boob lift/lid lift…. not exactly how I wanted to handle my impending 50th. So, since I jumped off of a Swiss Mountain attached to a beautiful red parasail last year, the question loomed…what to do to mark my big day?

Ever since we started exploring Southern France there has been one mountain looming in the distance along road trips east of Axat – Canigou. Joe has climbed it twice; from two different sides. He’s reported back each time how wonderful it is, but how much of a challenge it could be for me given the weather conditions, the terrain, etc. So, I’ve kept it off my list. Until this year when I declared I would climb Canigou for my 50th.

Canigou is 9,133 feet high, just 193 feet shorter than my highest peak of all time, Pic Coume d’Or. And it’s a thousand feet higher than my highest climb so far this summer, Le Madres. To be honest, I cried from exhaustion while climbing both of those mountains, so I was fully aware of what a challenge Conigou would present. Surprised by the gauntlet I threw down, Joe started to prepare me for the climb. You may have noticed from my facebook posts this summer ( a pattern of increasingly more difficult climbs I’ve written about: The Devil’s Spine, La Tour del Far, Pic d’Ourtiset, Sculpture 5k, the Three Rocky Outcrops above Axat, and Le Madres. Each one of these climbs has challenged and stretched me in different ways; preparing me for steepness, uneven footing, weather elements, exposure, endurance, elevation, and mental toughness. Muscles firmed up. Knees, hips, and ankles complained but have kept working nonetheless. There were slips, bumps, scrapes, bruises…but on June 23rd, the day before my 50th birthday, every moment of preparation was put to the test as we made our way toward the objective – Canigou.

It’s a long drive from Axat up to the trail-head on Canigou, and we knew that weather would be a concern as afternoon storms are common in the mountains. So I set my iPod alarm to “quack” at 5:08am, and although thoughts of taking 5 more minutes to snooze entered my mind, I fought the urge, arose to dress, and fed Ralph & Milhaud. Knowing there would be time to digest during the drive, we had a fuller breakfast than usual (pain au chocolat, apricots, juice, and coffee) and at 5:45am left the house in the southern direction of Col de Jau. The roads up to, over, and down from the Col are narrow, tightly twisting, and, at these early morning hours, teeming with birds flying right in front of us like suicidal maniacs. A sort of bubbly science experiment began to take place in my stomach as we dipped and zig-zagged along the road. I cracked open my window for fresh air. I voiced my condition and concern for keeping breakfast inside my body. Joe slowed the car a little to ease the swaying motions. But as we entered the tiny village of Catllar, just north of Prades, the inevitable occurred – vomit. Wow, nothing says ‘Happy Birthday’ like barfing all over a bridge in a small French Village at 6-something in the morning. But I felt a heck of a lot better! And even though the entire mountain range ahead of us was densely enveloped in moisture laden weather, Joe was warning me that the jeep trail up to the parking area on Canigou was really in bad shape, and misty rain drops were starting to hit the windshield, I looked ahead at the utterly dismal scene, and decided to keep going. It could only get better.

Through Prades and into teeny Clara, to a road barely wide enough for a donkey cart, over a crumbling bridge, up a mountain jeep trail terribly in need of 40+ loads of dirt to fill in the holes, around death defying curves, their guard walls long lost down the sheer cliffs…visions of 1970s television fiery-ball car crashes in my minds’ eye…we made our way up the lower part of the mountain, negotiating right-of-way options as we pass car after car of red & yellow clad reveling Catalans ready to celebrate the Festival of St. John the Baptist.

Now, that may not ring as a notable holiday for most of you, but it’s one of the biggest Fêtes of the year for Catalans. In a nutshell, it is celebrating the birth of John the Baptist exactly 6 months before Christmas, and it just so happens to also be MY birthday and Midsummer. Villages from all over Catalonia send delegations to Canigou on the 22nd of June, where they camp overnight, play music, sing traditional songs, and generally party like it’s 1999. Early the next morning, these delegations climb the mountain and leave offerings of bundled twigs (tied with yellow/red stripped ribbons and hand written messages) at the foot of the huge iron cross at the mountain top. There is an official St. John’s Fire, and each group collects a bit of this fire in a lantern, which is brought back down the mountain to their village. These individual flames are welcomed with spectacular processions in each Catalan Village, and used to light gigantic bonfires of similarly bound twigs in the center of each village just before midnight to usher in the feast of St. John (June 24). This has been going on for…well, heaven knows how long. Centuries. Joe and I have enjoyed the festival in Argeles-sur-Mer twice during their Total Festum event. There’s fantastic local food, a parade of adorable children carrying twig bundles to make the bonfire, visceral Spanish guitar bands, children singing traditional songs, and a Catalan Band playing as dance troupes in colorful costumes swirl around the village square. As darkness descends, a full-on mob forms as the flame is brought into the town square by a procession led by 15-foot tall gigantic paper-mâché Saints and the delegation from Canigou…did I mention that the delegation carry boat oars? Yeah, they do. There’s cheering and lighting of the bonfire, fire works, and then everybody gets a glass of sweet Muscat wine and a sugary, fondant covered Rosquille doughnut at midnight. What’s not to love?

AnyCampingway. We parked the car along a wide spot on the jeep road, and hiked over an hour, +/- 1000 feet, to the refuge/lodge where we noticed lots of Catalans breaking down campsites and bearing their lanterns. We even stopped to snap a photo with a couple of flame gatherers at their campsite.Michelle_starting_climb

Through clouds, mist, and streaks of sunshine we continued our ascent past herds of cows, over rocks and boulders, greeting descending Catalans with a cheery ‘¡hola! buen día’, as we made our way toward the top. Just a few hundred feet below the summit, after spending a couple enjoyable moments watching some wild chamois younglings hone their snow skills on a collioure well below us, it thundered….and I panicked! Last time it thundered while were were on a climb was 2 years ago. We were half-way around a mountain lake, and the storm came up on us over the ridge so fast that we were nearly running to keep ahead of it. The line of the day came during a hurried moment under a pine branch while donning a rain jacket as I said “Joe, is that hail I’m seeing?”, and he calmly replied “Yes it is. Keep moving.” (lesson learned!)


So when it thundered, I panicked not knowing if we should continue to climb the remaining 150 feet or head down and call it ‘good enough’. Joe is my strength and my rock, a seasoned climber, and my trusted guide and protector…he could tell there was time to reach the top and head back down to a safe elevation before the storm would kick into gear. So like a father Ram, he butted me up the bouldery slope to the summit. SUCCESS!!! Summit photos quickly snapped, a moment to take in the views and to admire the heaping pile of twig bundles swallowing up the iron cross, High Fives All Around, and we started to pick our way back down the mountain before all you-know-what broke loose on our heads.iron_cross_michelle_joe

Hail. Only steps down from the summit, as I worked my feet over boulders and uneven footing, it began to hail…and to rain…and then to hail again. What were good foot holds on the way up quickly turned into slippery slopes as everything became wet. Thunder boomed more closely now, and the wind changed. The sky took on a dark gray color as clouds brewed and churned. Changing up my strategy, I started using the dirt and gravel spaces instead of the larger rocks, and my footing, and confidence, improved. The elements briefly subsided, so we paused at a grassy spot to get a bit of food into my stomach to energize me for the full descent to the refuge. Along the way we were pelted by hail alternating with drizzle and then large rain drops, but I continued without complaint. We came upon a trio of  young men, looking haggard and sore legged, who asked us if we knew how to get to the refuge and if it was much further. They had come from the other side of Canigou, up and over the mountain the long way, and were continuing on along the GR trail on quite a journey. We told them that we were headed to the refuge ourselves, and that it was not much further…maybe 30 minutes…would they like us to show the way? And within the time frame promised, wet but not soaked through, we all reached the safety of the beautifully rugged, stone refuge-lodge where lots of outdoor enthusiasts were already at tables, eating lunch and playing games within the safety of the building.

Refuges are served by a very small crew, sometimes volunteering their time. It’s a good idea to treat them kindly, as these people may very well save your life someday. Seeing that it was 2:45pm, and lunch was served only until 3:00, I pleasantly asked a staff person if there was any soup left, and if so, if we might have a little. Glancing at the time, she said she’d ask the cook – came back with an affirmative response, and said she would bring it to our table. We removed our wet outer gear, bought a beer and a cup of coffee, and sat at a corner table facing the room of hikers, and watched the increasingly terrible weather outside. Wave after wave of hail pelt the earth, thunder crashed, and I was SO thankful we were inside. Just then, the soup was brought to our table. My imagination of Oliver Twist, wet and dirty, asking for a tin cup of thin broth to warm his bones was shattered by the crock of steaming split pea soup, slabs of hearty bread, and bowlful of grated cheese placed upon our table. This Was A Feast! Having seen our French neighbors deftly handle these elements, we placed chunks of bread in our wide bowls, covered the bread with a layer of cheese, and ladled in the aromatic soup. Bliss! Hearty, satisfying, fortifying, energizing, bliss.


I felt like I could conquer the world – or at least go back outside to descend the final hour plus down to the car. But not until an appropriate weather window appeared between bouts of ice pellets being hurled to the earth. So we exchanged pleasantries with hikers, sorted our packs, changed back into our outer gear, and when the weather-window opened, we made our escape. As we neared the car, Joe pointed out the fresh snowfall all around…to which I corrected that it wasn’t snow at all, but rather a blanket of hail stones.

(Family will recall a certain July 4th in 1970’s Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where a summer storm lay siege to our community and left everything buried in hail stones…betting there weren’t fire works that year)

villerachRambling down the rugged jeep trail at a death defying maximum 15km/hr, we emerged in tiny Villerach…not Clara. Oops! But no worry, this road was a bit better and we quickly found the D24, which we knew went into Prades. We continued through Prades and Catllar, and into the hot mineral bath town of Molitg-les-Bains where we’d booked a room at the elegantly luxurious Grand Hotel for a night of gourmet food, relaxation, and spa treatments! ( This place was truly wonderful and there’s no question why people from all over the globe go there for rest and rejuvenation. The gigantic bathtub in our room was a welcome bonus, and I quickly took advantage to soak my tired muscles. After an extremely delicous dinner, stroll around the grounds, sound sleep, and morning spa treatments, we both felt and looked wonderful! This was without doubt an amazing birthday! I’m looking forward to #51.

spa treatment birthday_dinner1birthday_dinner2



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